Thursday, May 31, 2007


Two New Stories about the Republican Agenda

Republicans and other conservatives often prattle about agendas: the homosexual agenda, the liberal elite agenda and the like. I picked up two stories today, one in the newspaper and the other on the internet, that illustrate an important item in the Republican Agenda. The basic goal of the Republican Party is to win elections and stay in office. That's proper. Some of the means of accomplishing that goal are not so proper.

Here is the first story:

The League of Women Voters reports that: Senator Mitch McConnell (R KY) has offered an amendment to the immigration bill pending in the Senate that would require every voter in the 2008 election to provide government-issued, current and valid photo identification before being allowed to vote at a polling place. This amendment would disenfranchise large numbers of legal voters and create administrative problems at the polls in the next federal election.

The second story comes from the front page of the Los Angeles Times:

Minnesota case fits pattern in U.S. attorneys flap
A prosecutor apparently targeted for firing had supported Native American voters' rights.
By Tom Hamburger, Times Staff WriterMay 31, 2007

WASHINGTON — For more than 15 years, clean-cut, square-jawed Tom Heffelfinger was the embodiment of a tough Republican prosecutor. Named U.S. attorney for Minnesota in 1991, he won a series of high-profile white-collar crime and gun and explosives cases. By the time Heffelfinger resigned last year, his office had collected a string of awards and commendations from the Justice epartment.

So it came as a surprise — and something of a mystery — when he turned up on a list of U.S. attorneys who had been targeted for firing.

Part of the reason, government documents and other evidence suggest, is that he tried to protect voting rights for Native Americans.

At a time when GOP activists wanted U.S. attorneys to concentrate on pursuing voter fraud cases, Heffelfinger's office was expressing deep concern about the effect of a state directive that could have the effect of discouraging Indians in Minnesota from casting ballots.

Citing requirements in a new state election law, Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer directed that tribal ID cards could not be used for voter identification by Native Americans living off reservations. Heffelfinger and his staff feared that the ruling could result in discrimination against Indian voters. Many do not have driver's licenses or forms of identification other than the tribes' photo IDs.

Kiffmeyer said she was only following the law.

The issue was politically sensitive because the Indian vote can be pivotal in close elections in Minnesota. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has one of the largest urban Native American populations in the United States. Its members turn out in relatively large numbers and are predominantly Democratic.

Heffelfinger resigned last year for personal reasons and says he had no idea he was being targeted for possible firing. But his stance fits a pattern that has emerged in the cases of several U.S. attorneys fired last year in states where Republicans wanted more vigorous efforts to legally challenge questionable voters.

There are many other stories that carry the same implication: some Republicans set a high priority on preventing or discouraging certain classes of people from voting. They say that these are people who have committed felonies (Florida) or people who are not citizens (immigrants; Senator McConnell) or people otherwise not qualified to vote. Is it surprising to learn that the majority of people in these classes tend to vote for Democrats?

Enough said.

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Friday, May 25, 2007


"Framing" an Argument

My friends H, M, R, and S argue with me and each other about political, ecnomic, and social matters. Often S and I are on one side and H, M, and R are on the other side. Sometimes the division is more complicated. However, I classify H, M, and R, according to their expressed opinions, as "conservatives." S and I are the "liberals" or "anti-conservatives." S and I occasionally disagree. R tends to be more libertarian and less religious than H and M. For example, R favors funding for any and all stem cell research, including federal funding. H and M oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In fact, they would prefer that embryos not be used for research at all.

In a recent exchange, R asserted that "liberal elites" do not trust the public to vote for or choose programs or policies that these "elites" favor. For example, "liberal elites" oppose drilling for oil in the ANWR in Alaska, while the people of Alaska are very much in favor of the drilling. The "liberal elites" do not trust the public.

My first response to this rant was to declare my support of local democracy. I argued that both local government units and the federal government can make mistakes, but that local units are more flexible and can recognize and correct mistakes quicker than the federal government can. I can go on (although I didn't in my e-mail to R, H, M, and S) to cite the federal government's long-running "war" on drugs as an example of a mistake that the feceral government is slow to recognize and correct. Local governments, for example the people of California, recognize that the inclusion of marijuana or hemp or cannabis in the list of dangerous drugs that ought not to be available to the public is a mistake. Even if the federal government won't recognize it, local voters know that the "legal" drug ethanol, the active ingredient in whisky and brandy and wine, is more "dangerous" than the "illegal" drug that is the active ingredient of marijuana.

But getting back to the emotional term "liberal elite," I now understand that the phrase is used simply to "frame" the argument. It is a way of showing scorn and contempt for a particular point of view without having to justify the opposition to it. I myself am opposed to drilling for oil in ANWR. My argument is that any oil discovered there (I concede that there is probably a lot of oil there) isn't going to affect the price of oil today, nor for several years. It will take that long to build the equipment to extract the oil and transport it to an all-weather port, such as Valdez. I believe that the money spent to drill and exploit the oil field there would be better spent developing and building plants that use new, renewable, and non-polluting sources of energy. My view is dismissed by my conservative friends as simply "elitist."

They do have an argument. After implying that I am a contemptible "liberal elitist," R goes on to point out that even though the oil from ANWR won't be available for several years, we in the United States will continue to use petroleum for fuel. When the oil from ANWR does come on line, it will represent oil that we no longer have to buy from sources in Arabia, Iran, Africa, and South America. The money that would have gone to the sheiks and emirs and ayatollahs and crazy South American leaders would instead stay within the United States. That is a valid argument. However, R and M go on to argue that the saved money would be spent in the United States in such a manner as to create 700,000 new jobs. That part of the argument I dismiss as being an unprovable, highly optimistic prediction. Whether the oil comes from ANWR or Iraq or Nigeria or Iran, the money to pay for it will come from Americans who buy gasoline for their cars and fuel oil for their furnaces and from American industries who directly or indirectly use petroleum to generate the power needed to produce their products. In one case the money will go to the sheiks and emirs and ayatollahs. In the other case, it will go to the stockholders of American Big Oil (Exxon-Mobile, Union, etc.). I have asked my conservative friends to explain to slow-witted me how the money that goes to American Big Oil is going to create any more jobs than the money that goes to the emirs and their ilk.

The argument "money-at-home = jobs" seems to me to be a variant of supply-side economics. Make it and people will buy. Build it and people will use it. My belief is that the decision of whether to start a new enterprise starts with the question of whether there is a market for a particular service or product. One has to prove that a potential market exists before a prudent investor will be willing to risk some of his money in the enterprise. One doesn't start the enterprise and then hope that customers will materialize.

My friend M argued that the extra money would be in American pockets, not in the pockets of the emirs, etc. It takes money to buy the services and products of a new enterprise. With this extra money, there would be extra demand, etc. I will let you, the reader of this blog, meditate for a while on this argument and decide for yourself whether it makes any sense.

It has been discussed elsewhere that conservatives have been more adept at using framing to force a desired conclusion to a debate or argument than liberals. I don't expect liberals to improve their "framing" skills. However, they must learn to recognize a frame when they see it and call it by its name. Terms like "liberal elite," "tax-and-spend Democrats," and "soft on crime" are well-worn frames that have had some influence on elections. The last liberal that I can recall that used frames effectively to counter his conservative opponents was Franklin Roosevelt. "Economic Royalist" was an effective frame in his day. We liberals need a man like FDR today.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007


Constitutional Crisis

I am conflicted about the campaign in the liberal blogosphere to deny President Bush the "clean" bill he wants for funding his war in Iraq. Bloggers in Daily Kos are insisting that we write our members of Congress. Democrats are to hold off on voting for any funding bill that doesn't specify a schedule for withdrawing our troops. If the bill is passed according to Bush's liking, let it be the Republicans who vote for it. If there is no bill, Bush will eventually be forced, so the thinking goes, to remove the troops because there won't be any money left to keep paying them.

Democrats fear that this tactic will boomerang. They fear that Bush will not be blamed if our army is left in Iraq with no money, no replacements, no supplies. They fear that Mr. Bush will be able to convince the public that it is the evil Democrats who have left our troops in such a dire strait just to try to make a political statement.

Unfortunately, the Democrats may be right. The public doesn't understand how creaky and unworkable our constitutional system is. It takes persons of genius, tolerance, and good sense to make it work. When we have a President who is so utterly divorced from reality as Mr. Bush and who, in addition, is convinced that he is doing God's work, there is nothing that Congress can do to force him to change policy. All that Congress can do is to impeach and convict him and remove him from office.

The impeachment process has worked to remove unpopular judges who otherwise serve liftime terms. It has never worked to remove an unpopular or incompetent President, if we except Richard Nixon, who resigned after impeachment rather than face a trial in the Senate.

Votes are available in the House to impeach Mr. Bush, but not in the Senate to convict and remove him from office. We have a constitutional crisis on our hands and no solution available. I hate to say it, but in some countries with a Presidential system like ours, the next step would be an assassination or a coup d'etat. Both assassinations and coups d'etat are repugnant to Americans. We are left with the stalemate in which a stubborn and self-righteous President will stare down his Congressional opponents.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Is Liberalism a Religion?

My Conservative friends H, M, and R have charged me with having opinions that are not based on fact but are as firmly held as those of a devout follower of one of the great religions of the world. They quote Ann Coulter, who wrote something along that line about Democrats. Conservatives, or at least my three friends H, M, and R, believe that Liberal Democrats are so wrong about nearly everything that they must be members of some religion.

My first reaction to this charge was that it was just the usual prejudiced nonsense that Conservatives like to write and say about Liberals. Actually, it is Conservatives that seem to have opinions that are not supported by facts but instead are based on their ideas of what a just and fair society should be and how it should treat its members.

I thought some more. Then I realized that both Liberals and Conservatives base their ideas of a just, fair, and proper society on a set of moral and ethical values. Both Conservatives and Liberals have values. Values are moral ideas or ideals that don’t seem to be based on considerations of cost, efficiency, and proper allocation of scarce resources. They are based on tradition and on our notions of history. Some people assert that they are given to us by God.

Without going into a long discourse on the subject, I believe that morality and the ideas of how people in a society, whether it be a nation, a tribe, a family, or a working group, treat each other are very ancient and were firmly fixed in the minds of our distant ancestors before they decided to unite morality with religion. The most widely recognized moral or ethical rule is called the “golden rule:” Treat others as you wish to be treated. This rule covers a wide spread of moral rules, such as abstaining from stealing, murder, impregnating another man’s wife, and coveting. Liberals and Conservatives alike believe in this rule and try to follow it most of the time.

There is another moral rule that is a bit controversial. This rule states that the society, tribe, or group has to take care of its members. An injured member must not be abandoned. (Actually, this rule can be thought of as an example of the Golden Rule: if you are injured or in trouble, you would like the group to help you.) The controversy arises when this rule is extended to members of society who are poor, old, or disabled. Especially if the society exists in a region of scarcity, it is important that every member of the society pull his or her weight in the effort to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for everyone. Such a society may decide collectively that it can’t support those who can not work. Non-productive individuals are abandoned.

I think the application of this second rule forms part of the divide between Conservatives and Liberals. Liberals like me argue in favor of universal health care for all members of society. We argue that society should and can provide good medical care for everyone. Conservatives argue that the ideal of universal health care is unattainable. If medical care is freely available at no cost to the individual, many individuals will overuse it and the whole system will break down. Besides, individuals should learn to take care of themselves and live lives in which they avoid medical problems. Self-discipline to retain good health rather than free medical care for the sick is their approach.

So, back to the original charge: am I, a Liberal, following a set of beliefs like those of a religion or am I following logic, reason, and proven facts? Well, yes, I am. I believe in a society that nurtures and takes care of all its members. A certain amount of competition is good for people, but excessive competition leads to a rather ugly society in which a few winners dominate everyone else. At least that’s what I believe. Conservatives believe that too much nurturing, too much taking care of everyone leads to dependence and weakness. A society should be strong and its strength must come from strong, self-reliant members.

In my calmer moments, that’s how I see the difference between Liberals and Conservatives. Both have beliefs that they cling to. Both Liberalism and Conservatism are somewhat like religions.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007


Role of the Attorney General in the Unitary Executive

Advisors to President Bush argue in favor of the “unitary executive” as the model for the American Presidency. There is some support in the federal constitution for such an interpretation. In contrast to a typical State constitution (e.g., the California State Constitution) the federal constitution gives the President the power to choose the various heads of Departments. In particular the Attorney General is chosen by the President. In California and most other States, the Attorney General is elected. The Attorney General of a State is not necessarily a member of the same Party as the Governor. We have an example today in California, with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor and Democrat Jerry Brown, a former governor, as Attorney General.

Until the emergence of a possible scandal in the Bush Administration’s firing of several US attorneys, perhaps for political gain, I looked askance at States in which many of the heads of government departments were elected instead of appointed. Why shouldn’t States be more like our central government? Why, in California, should the Treasurer, the Controller, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, and other officials be elected rather than appointed by the Governor?

Now, I know. A few weeks ago some pundit on television pointed out that the Attorney General of the United States is supposed to work for the American People and not for the political advisors to the President. I have learned that many career lawyers in the Department of Justice have resigned since the appointment of Alberto Gonzales to be the Attorney General. It is reported (I can’t cite any references) that morale among the remaining career lawyers is low, due to the feeling that the department is being politicized and that the path to job safety lies in pleasing the political consultants of Mr. Bush rather than in impartial pursuit of justice. Gonzales apparently feels that his primary obligation is to George W. Bush rather than to the American People.

This is a situation up with which we should not put. Absent any change in the present procedure for choosing and confirming Attorney Generals, the Senate must be much more skeptical of Presidential nominees for the position. The Justice Department must not become a fruitful target for political appointees. The President’s personal political philosophy must not be imposed on the non-political career lawyers of the Department.

A desirable change would be to make the office of Attorney General non-partisan and permanent, like the director of the FBI. Because of the special nature of the Department of Justice, the leader should not be changed to suit the philosophical bent of a new Administration.

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Friday, May 11, 2007


The Folly of Vengeance

Too many of our public policies seem to be based on vengeance rather than reason. Some examples:

Religious leaders and teachers tell us that God does not approve of humans taking revenge on each other. Some quotes that come to mind are “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” and “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” We are taught that giving up vengeance is a religious obligation. The implication is that if there were no God, it would be all right to take vengeance whenever we please. Perhaps humans were prone to vindictiveness during the millions of years before they discovered God, or before God revealed Himself to them.

I don’t think so. I think that, as human society developed and evolved, thoughtful people noticed that vengeance tends to be self-destructive. Vengeance leads to blood feuds between families. Vengeance is often a waste of precious resources. Society functions better if people practice forgiveness rather than vengeance. This is a lesson learned from thousands of years of experience in living together in groups larger than a single nuclear family. I think it was only much later in human experience that such lessons in practical morality, such as foreswearing vengeance and following the golden rule, were given a religious sanction. Religion, or the belief in a protective God, came from such sources as ancestor worship and from attempts to explain inexplicable and unpredictable events, such as earthquakes, eclipses, and floods. The dead ancestor was the protector of the tribe or family. Different gods produced different events of importance to people engaged in either hunting and gathering or agriculture.

Today science has brought explanations for many of the events that were once attributed to angry gods who needed to be placated. We no longer believe in a god of rain, a god that produces earthquakes, a god that causes famine, and the like. We understand how these things come to pass and we no longer need a belief in the supernatural to explain them. We are becoming more and more secular. But we need to retain our moral values. The golden rule is just as applicable in an atheistic society as in a theistic one. Abjuring vengeance is just as important without a personal God as with one.

I’m getting to a point; really, I am. My point is that people who make public policy should carefully examine these policies to make sure they are based on cool-headed logical reasoning and not on hot-headed desires for vengeance. We should not sentence convicted criminals to very long sentences just because some members of the voting public think they should be punished and punished and made to suffer for what they’ve done, etc. Vengeance in this case requires the construction of additional prisons and the hiring of more prison guards. Many of these criminals could be just as effectively be punished by putting them on probation. On probation they would be encouraged to learn how to live in our society without committing additional crimes.

Another point is that our drug policy is wrongly based on taking vengeance against the users. We hate and despise drug addicts. We believe they are monsters who rob widows and orphans. We believe they are hopelessly depraved and deserve the worst possible punishment. We thirst for vengeance against those who use drugs in spite of our well-meaning laws to forbid such use.

We must learn to give up the desire for vengeance.

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